a short story by Aby Sam Thomas
So, there I was, running down the stairs to the Thane railway station’s main platform; with one hand holding my bag and my newly purchased train tickets, and the other pressing my mobile phone close to my right ear. I struggled to hear what my partner was saying on the phone, as I still had my IPod headphones stuffed in my ears. I was in a rush to get the next available train to the Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus, my partner would be waiting for me there at six, and it was already five. I screamed into my phone that yes Rohan, I will reach there in time, we are going to do this, and I’m not backing out; while I vainly tried to stuff my tickets to the back pocket of my jeans. For an instant, I turned my head back, saw the pocket opening and shoved my tickets in.
I had run into something hard and huge. I felt its ribbed leathery texture rub against my cheeks; and I got bounced back by the impact. I dropped my belongings, bent over and wheezed, blinking my eyes and cursing under my breath. Once I had caught my breath again, I slowly stood and then looked up to see what kind of pillar I had run into.
Only it was not a pillar. It was an elephant.
It was a small elephant, compared to the kind I had in my head-but it was big enough to crush puny old me if it so wished. It was coloured an ashen grey, wrinkles all over that colossal body—I realized I had run into the side of the elephant. How could I possibly run into an elephant? It had lemon shaped black eyes; with fluttery long eyelashes. It also seemed to be covered in dust, which added to the asbestos grey pallor it had. Chains encircled all four legs of the elephant; they seemed to be tied to a pillar some distance away. I got only a glimpse of the elephant’s face-the slithering trunk, the left tusk shorter than the right, and something scribed in sandalwood paste on its forehead.
I stared down at the ground again, waiting for the stars to stop whirling. That’s when a neat, sturdy male voice said, “I hope you’re alright. You should really look where you’re going, you know.”
I looked up again, thinking it must be the mahout or one of the passersby. But there was no one near me, and I looked around wonderingly.
“Are you okay? Can you hear me?” the voice said again.
This time I stared blankly, with the elephant’s overwhelming greyness looming in front of me. I shifted my head to the left slightly, and noticed the elephant’s beautiful black eyes looking right at me. I then watched in absolute shock as I saw the elephant’s lip curl and move, and speak the words, “I do hope you haven’t lost all sense running into me.”
My mouth fell open. I stood rooted to the spot for a few moments, and then stepped over my bag on the ground, and stood in front of the elephant, taking in its colossal stature. The pachyderm obstacle in my path was talking to me.
I stuttered and gasped, “You…you can talk…”
The elephant closed his eyes—I marvelled again at those eyelashes—and flared them open again, flapping his ears now. “Good,” he replied, “You had me worried there for a minute. There must be something heavy on your mind if you missed me in your path.”
I was still staring wide eyed, and repeated, “You can talk…”
He dropped his eyes, and nodded his head ever so slightly. “Yes. And the sooner you accept that, I think that’ll be easier.”
I consider myself to be an extremely sane person. I don’t believe in ghosts and aliens, I believe in things that are tangible and real. But at that point of time, when faced with the prospect of conversation with an elephant (one that I had run into, no less), I tried to shut down all doubt in my head. Maybe it was my unconscious sub-conscious mind talking to me or whatever it is that Freudian geniuses spout each day in the name of science—but at that moment, I was willing to accept that I was facing a talking elephant.
Maybe the impact of all this was too much for me, and I seated myself, cross-legged in front of the elephant. His trunk swooped onto me, and swished down my face. I felt the hairs on his nostrils—this was as real as it gets, my mind said.
“So, where were you rushing off to like that, not looking where you’re going?” the elephant said.
I shook my head, ignoring the question. I said the one thing in my mind: “How can you talk!”
The elephant’s extremely agile trunk pulled up some leaves that were lying next to him, and dumped them in his large, pink mouth. While he munched, he said, “All animals talk, mate. They just don’t want to talk to you. Of course, we make exceptions sometimes-like I did with you today.”
“All animals?” I suddenly felt guilty about making my dogs beg for treats.
“All of them. That rat over there just told me I am wasting time talking to you.”
I turned around to see a massive black rat running away, glaring at me. I decided to forego the question of what the rat had against me.
“But-can everyone else hear you now—why isn’t anyone else hearing this?” I indicated the number of people who were walking past us, but with no interest whatsoever in what was going on between us.
“No, they can’t. I choose who to talk to, and who can listen to me. It’s a difficult thing to comprehend—you wouldn’t understand that.”
I shook my head again. This made no sense, I was going mad. Great time to go mad too, I said to myself. Rohan would be throwing a fit by now at CST.
As if he had read my mind, the elephant said, “You might as well drop all contentions of what’s real and what’s not real for a bit now. Let’s face it, if you were to talk of this to anyone, you’d be the first to be dumped into a psychiatric care ward. So, I say, just let it be.”
I breathed in deeply, nodding yes.
“What’s your name?” the elephant asked.
“Abhay,” I replied. “What is your—”
The elephant cut me off, shaking his head, those mighty ears flapping wondrously. “I don’t think you’d be able to recognize me from any other elephant that you might see in the future. For you human beings, a name makes sense to identify you, as you at least have a unique facial identity—not so for our kind. So, to know my name is really a worthless task. I suggest we just continue as is.”
I nodded again. The talking elephant made sense.
“Abhay—what are you listening to?”
I realized that my headphones were still in my ears; though I wasn’t actually listening to the song. I recognized the guitar play and replied, “Matchbox Twenty. Unwell.”
He closed his eyes, and then swirled his trunk in the air. “Yes, a nice track. Pretty old though, isn’t it?”
This was getting a bit too difficult for me to digest. Fine, the elephant talks. Fine, the elephant speaks in perfect English. Fine, the elephant seems to have a good head on its shoulders (?). But-an elephant well-versed in music and pop culture? An omniscient elephant—what the heck was going on?!?!
I muttered, hesitantly, “You’ve—you’ve heard of the song?”
“Yes, indeed I have. I pretty much like their ‘Bright Lights’ too.”
I stopped trying to search for explanations. I decided to just blindly accept whatever was happening.
The elephant’s trunk then flew down near my face, while he said, “But—no matter how good the song may be, I think it is perfect impertinence on your part to have these things in your ears when obviously, you are having a conversation with me.” Saying so, the elephant’s nimble trunk pulled out the white headphones, and they hung floppily around my neck.
As I said, I had stopped trying to understand. I was having a conversation with an elephant that insists on and appreciates good manners. I continued to stare at the elephant’s massive head, his mouth chewing something.
The elephant repeated again, “So, where is it you’re headed to today?”
“I…I was on my way to CST.”
“Ah, okay. Something planned for tonight?”
I shifted uneasily and changed the way I was sitting—I folded my legs and grasped them with my arms. I replied, “Yes. My friend Rohan is waiting for me. We are—we have work tonight.”
The elephant didn’t reply. I had a feeling he hadn’t bought my answer. He moved a step back, and used his trunk to pull my bag, which was still lying on the ground. A thorough shake, and the zipper split open; and the contents of the bag fell out.
I flinched as I noticed the black mask, the toy gun and some tubes of plastic and wire stuck together fall out in front of my toes.
The elephant sounded menacingly dark, as he said, “Tell me, Abhay, what exactly is the nature of your work tonight?”
This was no longer entertaining, and my initial surprise had now turned into a combative demeanour. I was on my guard—if this was a game, this was not one that I liked. Rohan and I had decided on a daring yet seemingly fool-proof plan to rob Rohan’s diamond merchant father; the money required so that Rohan can speed off into some unknown land with the love of his life. I was his best friend, and I had sided along with him. While we were friends since childhood and I called that the reason for me helping him, I knew I was actually in it for the excitement and the pay-off. The thrill, the rush—the thought somehow excited me.
I had stood up, and now was looking straight at the elephant’s face. His eyes seem narrowed now. I couldn’t nudge the uncomfortable feeling lurking around my neck. I said, “I don’t need to explain anything to you—this is just some crazy figment of my imagination; this is not real.”
“Oh, this is very much real. I am just an obstacle in your path; but I also hope I am able to knock some sense into you. What is wrong with you, Abhay? You’re going to rob a man, so that your friend can get to live in the hills with his girlfriend?!? What kind of foolish, gullible mind does that? You’re nineteen—and this is your freaking idea of fun?!” The elephant stepped forward now, his trunk waving side to side. The flapping ears now began to flap faster, and I felt hot suddenly.
I was no longer in awe—I was suddenly afraid, and I was on the defensive now. “Stop—shut up—what the f—”
“You have no idea what you’re getting into; all of this is some ruthless childish whim of yours, maybe inspired from some hideous movie! Do you even know what this crazy act could do to you? Or your family? Or your future, damn it?” The elephant was angry, his voice deep and resonating.
I was crying now. I had no idea what was going on. How could this freaking elephant know everything? What is going on? I must have flipped and gotten mad finally! I was flaying my arms, tears flowing down my face, slobbering and wailing.
The elephant’s trunk now came up near my face, and he hissed at me, in a clear voice, “Listen to me, Abhay, and listen good. I am here to stop you, and check you before you make this hideous mistake. I want you to turn around, and return to your home, and think very carefully about what you were going to do. Is that understood?”
I was bawling. I looked around, people stared, but nobody bothered to ask. I nodded helplessly at the elephant.
The elephant’s trunk then swooped down on my face, and for the second time that day, I felt the air knocked out of me as the elephant smacked me on the face hard with his trunk. As the slap echoed in my ears, his stern voice said, “Now go.”
I was still crying as I ran back and jumped into the nearest auto-rickshaw, managing to tell the driver my address in between my tears. I turned around to look at the elephant once again.
I saw his small eyes, gentle yet strong. The left tusk seemingly cut off, the right one still long and sharp. The large all encompassing ears. The mark of the trident on his forehead.
I overheard the driver muttering a prayer as he started his vehicle:
“Oh Ganesha; Vigneshwara;
Remover of obstacles from the righteous’ path;
Creator of obstacles for those who need to be checked;
Be with me.”
I whipped my head around once again to look at the elephant—and this time, I saw him staring back at me, a hint of a smile on that remarkable face.